Nature vs. Nurture: Externalizing problem behaviours in boys
June 23, 2013, 1:10 am
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Early Childhood Education, Gender

(This paper was written in January 2013 and submitted as a final assignment for a module on helping children cope with stress, while doing my Bachelors. Regarding the referencing, my template on WordPress kinda messed up my indents as required by APA so I have decided to do without the indents.)


In many studies on emotional distress due to extreme adversity, boys reportedly react with more aggression and externalizing problem behaviors whereas girls respond to similar events with more internalizing problem behaviors such as depression (CelebiOncu and Metindogan Wise, 2010; Giannopoulou et al., 2006; Monahon, 1997; Vizek-Vidovic et al., 2000; Winje&Ulvik, 1998). Although gender differences were found to be too small to be of any significance in some other studies (CelebiOncu and Metindogan Wise, 2010) the existence of externalizing problem behaviors such as aggression, delinquency and hyperactivity among boys, cannot be ignored. This is because according to Wefald (2005), “the lives and futures of women and girls are interwoven with those of men and boys” (Froschl and Sprung, 2005, p. 1), therefore the indication that more boys than girls are prone to displaying externalizing problem behaviors, especially aggression, raises the concern of the possibility of future increase in violence towards society-at-large, including women and girls. Also, although externalizing problem behaviors are described as a separate phenomenon from internalizing problem behaviors, they often co-occur (Pesenti,-Gritti, Spatola, Fagnani, Ogliari, Patriarca, Stazi, Battaglia, 2007, p. 82). Besides that, externalizing problem behaviors affect the learning and developmental well-being of all children. Hence, the purpose of this report is to explore the following questions:-

1. Are the reasons behind externalizing problem behaviors displayed by boys due to nature or nurture?

2. What can parents and educators do in their part to raise and educate healthy boys in the face of adversity?

Literature review

Externalizing problem behaviors

According to Campbell, Shaw and Gilliom (2000), cited by Liu (2004), externalizing problem behaviors in young children refers to actions and expressions observed in children’s outward behaviorthat negatively affects their external environment (p. 93). Rubin, Bukowski and Parker (2006) state that children displaying externalizing problem behaviors such as aggression may become angrier and more hostile over time as they may encounter rejection and victimization from their peers (Eisenberg, Valiente, Spinrad, Cumberland, Liew, Reiser, Zhou and Losoya, 2009, p. 990). In addition,Farington (2001) also mentions that early manifestations of aggressive and antisocial behavior are “a strong predictor of adult crime and violence” (Liu, 2004, p. 95 – 96). Similarly, Loeberand Hay (1997) mention that, “most violence appears to erupt in youths who have been aggressive earlier in life” (p. 384). In contrast to girls, boys reported a higher tendency to display externalizing problem behaviors (Besser and Blatt, 2007, p. 127).

Genetic/ biological risk factors

Liu (2004) lists several maternal pathophysiological factors such as malnutrition, smoking, drug use and alcohol consumption during pregnancy as well as “a genetic predisposition to externalizing behavior from both the mother and father, and birth complications” as biological risk factors (p. 98). Prenatal exposures such as cocaine and alcohol were found to be one of the risk factors related to problem behaviors among children in a study conducted by Delaney-Black, Covington, Templin, Ager, Nordstrom-Kee, Martier, Leddik, Czerwinski and Sokol (2000, p. 782). The study also concludes that boys who were prenatally exposed to cocaine “were twice as likely as controls to have clinically significant scores for externalizing and delinquency behaviors” (p. 782). Prenatal exposure to substances such as tobacco, alcohol and cocaine has been linked to learning problems (Minnes, Lang and Singer, 2011, p. 67). Low intelligence has been associated with violence and delinquency among children and adolescence. The relationship between low intelligence and antisocial behavior is more applicable to males than females (Lober and Hay, 1997, p. 390).

Genotypes may also contribute towards children’s response to adversity. In a study conducted by Caspi, McClay, Moffit, Mill, Martin, Craig, Taylor and Poulton (2007), it was found that maltreated children with a genotype conferring high levels of monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), an enzyme located on the X chromosome that helps to break down neurotransmitters such as serotonin, have a lower tendency to develop antisocial behavior. Citing Brunner, Nelen, Breakefield, Ropers and van Oost (1993), Caspi et. al also mention that a null allele at the MAOA locus in human beings was associated with male antisocial behavior (p. 851). In addition, aggressive behavior has been linked to testosterone, a hormone which is found several times more in males than females (Yang, Gao, Glenn, Peskin, Schug and Raine, 2012, p. 15). Yang et. al (2012) mention that in a meta-analysis conducted by Brook, Starzyk and Quinsey (2001), there lies a “modest but robust” link between antisocial behavior and testosterone although it was also noted that according to Banks and Dabs (1997), studies of testosterone and its link to aggressiveness found in children and adolescents “yielded mixed results” (p. 15).

Psychosocial risk factors

Psychosocial factors are factors that are not biological (Liu, 2007, p. 99). Examples of psychosocial factors listed by Yang et. al (2001) include “low social status, peer influence, physical abuse and parental rejection” (p. 3). Other factors include home environment and neighbourhood. Lober and Hay (1997) state that exposure to physical abuse alters children’s relationships with other adults outside the home (p. 400).

Most common psychosocial factors such as premature maternal detachment, parenting styles and adult attitudes, peer shaming and media portrayals of masculinity fall into the “the boy code”, a term coined by Pollack (1998) refers to the expectations society have for boys, leading to what Kindlon and Thompson (1999) call, “emotional illiteracy” or the inability to deal with emotions (Froschl and Sprung, 2005, p. 3). Pollack (1998) mentions that through high and premature expectations for boys to embrace what society perceives as masculine traits, boys are socialized to hide their emotions, be independent and displays strength in their personalities (p. ii). Similarly, Somoch and Elizur (2009) also spoke about “masculine honour”, a code under which males are expected to “express toughness, strength and dominance in public without showing fear and signs of weakness” (p. 606).

Yet on the other hand as society modernises, boys are also expected to shed their “macho assumptions”, be open about their emotions and sensitive towards their peers. These contradicting ideals result in confusing boys, and may lead to frustration, depression, anger, low self-esteem, failure to succeed in intimate relationships and violence (Pollack, 1998, p. ii – iii).

Biosocial interaction model

Resilient children are not “born that way”. They are also not “made from scratch” by their experiences” wrote Wang and Deater-Deckard (2012). This indicates that nature and nurture cannot be sole predictors of a child’s personality and in the case of this report, conduct problems. Using a biosocial interaction model of childhood externalizing behavior, Liu (2007) hypothesizes that a connecting relationship exists between biological and social risk factors leading to externalizing problem behaviors (p. 98 – 99).

Critical analysis

From the literature reviewed, it is apparent to me that there is no fixed pathway towards developing externalizing problem behaviors in children and specifically, in boys. Genetic/ biological risk factors such as genotype mutations are most of the time, unavoidable. Prenatal exposure to intoxicants and toxins however, can be avoided but we also have to understand that due to the addictive nature of some substances, avoidance may be difficult. As nature and nurture work hand in hand, we have to understand that although nature has dictated certain characteristics in some children, nurture can step in as intervention. Reading Pollack’s (1998) work has reaffirmed my belief that the quality of early experience, specifically with regards to attachment, matters to children. This is because attachment helps children develop their sense of security and as a result, it helps them achieve social competence. In his book, Pollack (1998) mentions that part of “the boy code” includes premature detachment of boys from their mothers as boys are expected to be independent as young as the age of five and six (p. ii). This could perhaps lead to a sense of vulnerability which may come to affect the personal confidence of boys and their sense of security. In a study done by Davidson and Demaray (2007) found that social support from teachers and peers for male victims of bullying are lacking, and hypothesized that teachers may perceive the victim as a target of harmless teasing, or dismiss the behavior of the perpetrators as “boys will be boys” (p. 401). As stated by Froschl and Sprung (2005), when “the teachers began to see the boys as gendered, the notion of resistance came forward. As the teachers’ relationships with each other developed, the resistance subsided and they confronted key issues, such as the strong emotions that boys can elicit and their own resistance to their school’s definitions of gender for themselves and for their students” (p. 13).

Therefore in order for parents and educators to ensure the healthy development of boys, we have to change our attitudes and expectations towards the gender and recognise that they too, are emotional beings who need a safe and non-judgmental space to express themselves.


This literature review sought to answer the following questions:

1. Are the reasons behind externalizing problem behaviors displayed by boys due to nature or nurture?

2. What can parents and educators do in their part to raise and educate healthy boys in the face of adversity?

Materials read with the goal to address the first question show that externalizing problem behaviors displayed by boys cannot be necessarily predicted based on genetic/ biological or environmental factors alone. Instead, it has been hypothesized that there exists a connecting relationship exists between biological and social risk factors leading to externalizing problem behaviors, a hypothesis which I am in agreement with.

Addressing the second question, parents and educators have to be aware of the fact that the different attitudes and expectations they may portray and harbour for both genders might contribute to boys’ display of externalizing problem behavior and girls’ display of internalizing problem behavior, both of which are detrimental to the mental well-being of both genders.

During the process of finding materials to address the above questions, I feel that there seem to be a lack of literature on the actual extent by which gender differences exist. One recommendation that I will suggest to future researchers is to conduct longitudinal studies looking further into the factors influencing gender differences with larger sample size and clearer explanations of how each factor links to another.


Besser, A. & Blatt, S. J. (2007). Identity consolidation and internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors in early adolescents. Psychoanalytic psychology, 24(1), 126 – 149.

Caspi, A.,McClay, J.,Moffit, T. E., Mill, J., Martin, J., Craig, I. W., Taylor, A., &Poulton, R. (2007).Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children.Science, 297, 851 – 854.

CelebiOncu, E. &Metindogan Wise, A. (2010). The effects of the 1999 turkish earthquake on young children: Analyzing traumatized children’s completion of short stories. Child development, 81(4), 1161 – 1175.

Delaney-Black, V., Covington, C., Templin, Ager, T., Nordstrom-Kee, J.,Martier, S., Leddik, L., Czerwinski, R. H. &Sokol, R.J. (2000). Teacher-assessed behavior of children prenatally exposed to cocaine. Pediatrics, 106(4), 782 – 791.

Eisenberg, N.,Valiente, C., Spinrad, T. L., Cumberland, A., Liew, J., Reiser, M., Zhou, Q. & Losoya. S. H. (2009). Longitudinal relations of children’s effortful control, impulsivity, and negative emotionality to their externalizing, internalizing, and co-occurringbehavior problems. Developmental psychology, 45(4), 988 – 1008.

Foschl, M. & Sprung, B. (2005). Raising and educating healthy boys: A report on the growing crisis in boy’s education. New York: Education Equity Centre/ Academy for Educational Development.

Liu, J. (2004). Childhood externalizing behavior: Theory and implications. Journal of child and adolescent psychiatric nursing, 17(3), 93 – 103.

Loeber, R. & Hay, D. (1997). Key issues in the development of aggression and violence from early childhood to early adulthood. Annual review of psychology, 43, 371 – 410.

Minnes, S., Lang, A. & Singer, L. (2011). Prenatal tobacco, marijuana, stimulant, and opiate exposure: Outcomes and practice implications. Addiction science & clinical practice, July, 57 – 70.

Pesenti,-Gritti, P., Spatola, C.A.M., Fagnani, C., Ogliari, A.,Patriarca, V., Stazi, M. A. & Battaglia, M.(2007).The co-occurrence between internalizingand externalizing behaviors: A general population twin study. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 17(2), 82 – 92.

Pollack, W. (1998).Real boys: Rescuing out sons from the myths of boyhood. New York:Random House. Somech, L. Y. &Elizur, Y. (2009). Adherence to honour code, mediates the prediction of adolescent boys’ conduct problems by callousness and socioeconomic status. Journal of clinical child & adolescent psychology, 38(5), 606 –618.

Yang, Y.,Gao, Y., Glenn, A.,Peskin, M.,Schug, R. A.&Raine, A. (2012). Biosocial bases of antisocial behavior. In DeLisi, M. & Beaver, K. M. (Ed.), Criminological theory: A life course approach. Jones and Bartlett Publishers.


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